My Friend Dahmer Review: The Dilemma Between Disgust and Empathy
We all know childhood is hell and that certainly rang true for teenage Jeffrey Dahmer. Between a father who cared more about his work in the chemistry lab than his sons, a combative mother who was in and out of institutions, and his own feelings of loneliness mingling with sexual confusion and a budding alcoholism problem, it's easy to feel bad for the guy. Or, after reading all of the horrific ways in which he murdered young boys and got away with it for decades, perhaps it isn't. My Friend Dahmer (2017), adapted from the excellent (and true!) graphic novel by Derf Backderf, explores that exact conundrum – an open ended question of just how much empathy you can truly afford someone who committed horrific crimes.
The movie tells the story of what Dahmer (expertly played by ex-Disney star Ross Lynch) was like back when he was just the high school weirdo. Unlike Backderf's original novel, which is presented as a mixture of his own memories of his friend and facts that later came to light about Dahmer's life at the time, the movie instead takes Dahmer's perspective. The camera follows teen Dahmer around passively as he collects road kill he later dissolves in acid, obsessively stares at a jogger from the bushes, and rubs small animal bones for comfort when his parent's arguments become too overwhelming. He has yet to kill anybody, but he's already plagued by a desire to do so in order to satisfy his need for control – both in his life and sexually.
My Friend Dahmer reminded me a lot of Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003), a similarly nonjudgmental film about a morally questionable subject. Elephant follows the largely uneventful day-in-the-lives of a handful of teens, that is until two of them initiate a school shooting, killing dozens and then themselves. The film never offers a real explanation for why the boys decide to shoot their peers, but it offers the audience plenty to muse on. From violent video games to school bullying to sexual confusion, have your pick of possible media buzzword theories. Yet all of these clues feel secondary to the boys' innate desire to do harm. The audience passively watches as these events unfold, but there's no specific reason for them to occur and seemingly no way to stop them from happening.
Where Elephant feels cold and distant, Marc Meyers's My Friend Dahmer mostly just feels sad. The culture of cruelty and selfishness in high school that masks deeper problems certainly plays a part in Dahmer's story. There's also a handful of symbolic-in-retrospect details; such as the teachers blacking his face out in the high school year book after Dahmer's friends sneak him into every school club photoshoot as a prank. But it also becomes clear pretty quickly that he is the product of a perfect storm of nature and nurture; between the complete failure of every adult in his life to really notice the warning signs, and his most likely inherited psychological issues, Dahmer never really had a chance. But then again, neither did his seventeen victims.
Meyer's movie makes the specific choice to tell this story through Dahmer's perspective, a choice I found to be questionable for a couple of reasons. For one, in a Stone Phillips interview given after his arrest in the early '90s, Dahmer himself admitted he didn't understand his own compulsive obsession with the insides of animals: "It could have turned into a normal hobby ["normal" - ed.] like taxidermy but it didn't, it veered off into this. Why, I don't know... I don't understand it." It's perhaps in part because of this, Dahmer is shown spending most of his time alone and in silence. The movie really only kicks in until half way, after he stumbles into Backderf's friend group. Once you have his relatively normal friends to compare him to in public settings does he start to really stick out like a sore thumb. While everybody else is interested in teasing girls or thinking about their college futures, Dahmer is clearly held back by his pain and secrets. Ross Lynch does an excellent job of conveying subtle and conflicted emotions in just a look, but he really shines when he has somebody else in the scene to work against.
The choice to tell this story through Dahmer's eyes gives me pause on another level – does he deserve this level of empathetic intimacy? In Backderf's novel he explicitly states that his empathy for Dahmer ends at the point of his first murder, which was found to have happened the summer after their high school graduation. Yet, that doesn't stop Backderf from trying to piece together how and when Dahmer went wrong before that event – despite acknowledging that it will never truly be knowable. Backderf's meditations on the inner life of this goofy kid he once knew puts the reader in the comfortably uncomfortable position of vicariously wondering what they'd do if they found out a friend of theirs turned out to be a serial killer. The film, however, removes that layer and just brings you to directly the unknowable source. It never excuses Dahmer's behavior, but it removes that cushion of disbelief, guilt and what-if that guides you through Backderf's novel and replaces it with just one feeling: disgust and empathy.
Do we really need another movie that gifts our time and understanding to a white male psychopath, when his seventeen victims were also living, breathing people far more worthy of the public's time and sympathy? The argument can be easily made that, on a cultural level, the genre in general has been majorly fatigued. And yet, perhaps in part because this is the story of a murderer before he murders, I still find myself compelled towards the subject. There's an arresting moment towards the end of the film in which Dahmer says to his buddy Backderf "I'm just like anybody else." As easy as it is to paint in the world in black and white, dismiss the experiences and emotions of those who perform evil. Yet, at the end of the day they are still just people. While I personally believe in a more hierarchical structure for compassion, I also think it should be distributed universally. There's something to be said for empathetically trying to understand how Dahmer became who he became, and the sadness – specifically for his victim's sake moreso than for his own – of wondering if it could have been possibly been stopped.